Eighteen months ago, a conflict erupted in our service. It did not relate to our client work. In this vast, complex and messy battle, there has been no complaint by any client of this service, or any client off the street of any of us – despite strenuous efforts by some of those involved to find one.
This is instead a ‘battle between therapists’.
In our view, it involves a profound underlying clash between a person-centred way of seeing/doing (i.e. an internal locus; the core conditions) and the culturally prevalent model of external locus, hierarchy, ‘accountability’, fault and blame.
The conflict centres around two therapists, who worked with us until mid 2012. Both said they had issues with another practitioner, who does not do client work for us, but is one of our supervisors. That practitioner also works with clients and supervisees in private practice. The complainants have allied themselves with a small group of other qualified therapists, a few with perceived grievances of their own against that practitioner and/or this service; others with no relevant direct experiences, who have nonetheless chosen to involve themselves on the basis of one side of the story and without access to much of the evidence.
All those involved are linked, some in multiple ways. So this is a group phenomenon – not a simultaneous ‘breaking cover’ of independent complaints. Clearly that makes a material difference to the overall picture, in terms of how group process operates, and the potential for cognitive dissonance/process contamination.
To us, it looks like a classic witch hunt. A group of people who have created, signed up to and perpetuated/cultivated a distorted reality, based on interpretation and assertion – unsupported and/or contradicted by the evidence.
This has morphed and changed worryingly over its 18 month history.
For example: Initially, the complainants voiced no issue with us as a service, or any person here – outside their issues with the supervisor concerned. In June 2012, complainant A described us as ‘a marvellous service’, based on two years’ experience of us.
However, as they have met with challenge and differing viewpoints, this group has increasingly attacked us as a service, and as individuals. Complainant A now describes us as a ‘therapeutic cult’.
In our 18 year history, we have never experienced a client or a therapist engaging in an external complaints process. To put this in context, we currently see some 160 clients a week, and around 30 therapists choose to work with us (often for many years).
In the past year, we/two of our other supervisors have been on the receiving end of five linked formal complaints to one membership association for therapists (besides those made to other organisations against the practitioner concerned by the same people). These five complaints were made by three therapists working collaboratively, the two complainants and one other. As said, the complaints do not relate to this service’s client work, but rather to the therapists themselves. The evidence suggests to us not an intention to work through legitimate concerns in a legitimate way, but rather to cause damage and destruction.
The practitioner at the heart of this conflict has been practising for even longer than this service, and this is equally unprecedented in their own history.
Our decision to publish this
So far, we as a service have commented little on this conflict in a public context. Obviously there are ethical and confidentiality implications. We would not be commenting now, had the complainants chosen to address their issues through an appropriate, confidential process – beginning with raising their perceived grievances with the practitioner concerned, and with us; turning to a external complaints/legal process, if that initial internal process had failed to resolve matters.
This is not the choice they made.
Instead, they chose consistently over 18 months to make widespread allegations to all kinds of inappropriate third parties, outside any confidential process. Much of this has taken the form of gossip between therapists. Complainant A has also made wide public comment – not naming us, but with easily enough context to identify both us and the practitioner concerned in the small Exeter therapeutic world. This has caused considerable reputational damage.
This behaviour disregards fundamental principles of human rights and of justice – for example, ‘innocent until proven guilty’ (the presumption of innocence) and the right to due process/to a defence. Their allegations are themselves thin and subjective – even if every word were true (which it isn’t), there is nothing that to our minds would justify the destruction of a senior and respected practitioner’s working life, let alone the attack on this service. Especially in this ‘let’s administer the sentence before/instead of the trial’ way. The complainants’ claims are in any event not supported by the evidence – indeed the evidence creates an entirely different picture.
In all of the circumstances, and especially in the context of further defamatory accounts of this conflict by one of the complainants in the last few weeks (in private and public contexts), we have now decided the time has come for us to say something.
This is a question for us of balance, and fairness. So far, four official processes have concluded, all in our favour and/or that of the practitioner concerned. There has been no finding against us or that practitioner, and no finding in favour of the complainants. Perhaps, in the interests of fairness and balance, the complainants have reflected this in their many references to this conflict?
The complainants have misrepresented one of these outcomes and remained silent about the other three (whilst continuing to publicize other ongoing processes, and their allegations asserted as fact). Having talked about the more worrying-sounding of these completed processes widely for months, they quietly dropped all reference to them when the outcome was not what they had hoped. That is profoundly unethical behaviour, in our view.
We are now close to a hearing within another process. We have serious concerns arising from how we have experienced that process so far – serious doubts that we will receive a fair hearing or a just, evidence-based decision that is respectful of diversity and our nature as a person-centred organisation. We are crystal clear that any form of decision against us will be used by the complainants as a base for further public comment, threatening our clients, our service, and the choices our 30 or so therapists and 10 or so office volunteers continue to make to work here.
So we want to give our perspective thus far, to enable people to weigh up what we are saying, against what the complainants have said or may say in future.
We want to make it clear that we are not disclosing in this post information that we know only through an ongoing confidential complaints process. Everything we are including here we know independently of that, or through multiple sources. It may be unconventional for us to speak, but we believe we are entitled to, and that we have an ethical basis for speaking.
We are trying to abridge a long and complex story. We are not going to name anyone in this post, which of course means that we cannot at this point publish the evidence on which we are relying. However, all the statements we are making – unless clearly statements of opinion – can be evidenced by us.
The BACP Ethical Framework states in its guidance around professional conduct issues for practitioners:-
48. They [practitioners] should raise their concerns with the practitioner concerned in the first instance, unless it is inappropriate to do so. If the matter cannot be resolved, they should review the grounds for their concern and the evidence available to them and, when appropriate, raise their concerns with the practitioner’s manager, agency or professional body.
49. If they are uncertain what to do, their concerns should be discussed with an experienced colleague, a supervisor or raised with this Association.
Complainant A emailed the practitioner concerned on 19 June 2012, announcing an intention to leave our service and raising a complaint (with some specifics). Complainant B signed a letter, emailed to the practitioner concerned on 27 June. That practitioner brought both contacts to us at once. We explored available evidence and talked about the issues at length. We rapidly became concerned about the behaviour of these two therapists and the small group of supporting therapists they had gathered around them. Although their allegations relate to separate facts, the two complainants were and are working together (something already strongly indicated by witness evidence by 19 June). They have used a lot of energy to gather around them a small group of other qualified therapists (this included several of our volunteers – principally training peers of complainant A – and others outside our service). Those involved are in some way previously connected (e.g. by dint of training together or friendship or through working relationships).
In our view, the 27 June letter was a shameful document. Three people signed it, and it was copied to a fourth. Two of those involved had known the practitioner concerned for decades. But they did not visit or pick up the phone. They emailed, in vague, general terms. The letter implied/hinted at serious wrong-doing, but included no specific information or allegations whatsoever. It also hinted at ambitions on our service, offering to discuss its ‘future’ with this practitioner.
However, there was a bigger problem for us in the crisis team than the content of the letter. At the point it was sent, the two complainants and their group had:-
- engaged in extensive discussions between themselves and with others about the practitioner concerned. We have email/other documentary evidence of this taking place substantially before they wrote their letter. This activity goes far beyond paragraph 49 of the BACP guidance – ‘an experienced colleague, a supervisor or raised with this Association’ – and in any event the purpose of paragraph 49 is to resolve uncertainty, i.e. it is intended to help find a route INTO raising ‘concerns with the practitioner concerned in the first instance’, not INSTEAD OF that;
- made detailed allegations to inappropriate third parties, including a church and at least one counselling training provider;
- begun widespread defamatory gossip in the Exeter community. We have evidence of this beginning well before the June letter was sent, and it continues to date;
- already initiated a complaints process with one organization – this was done by complainant A before sending their 19 June email;
- begun covertly contacting some of our therapists (outside the supervision/admin teams), making defamatory allegations, again implying serious wrong-doing (unsupported by evidence, and inconsistent with the actual allegations) in what appeared to be an attempt to rally support. A call to a witch hunt. We had repeated contacts from our therapists throughout the summer of 2012 and since, telling us about these approaches and expressing anger/concern (about the complainants’ behaviour, not about the practitioner concerned or this service).
The complainants had already done all of this at the date they sent the letter. This had already caused devastation to the working and personal life of the practitioner concerned – without that person even knowing what was happening until after the event, much less having any opportunity to have a voice or make a case. In metaphorical terms, this equates to deciding you have a boundary dispute with your next-door neighbour, levelling their house with a howitzer, and then writing to them to suggest they might like to sit in the rubble with you, so you can ‘raise your concerns’. There’s only one self-respecting and intelligent response to that, and it’s not: ‘What time would you like me to come?’.
In our view, whatever the merits/otherwise of their claims (and we will come onto this), how they behaved was ethically unacceptable. We therefore asked the three therapists who had signed/stood behind the letter to leave our service. It seemed to us like discovering theft in an employment situation – a breakdown of trust so vast, a breach of ethics so great, that we chose not to continue in relationship with them within this service. This was a unanimous decision by the three members of our crisis team, all senior therapists of many years’ experience. It is unprecedented in our 18 year history, and does not represent how we usually respond to conflict.
At this point, we knew nothing about the content of the second complaint – because the person complaining had not disclosed this to the practitioner concerned, or to us.
Our involvement as a service
The first complaint centred on ‘ethical concerns’ arising out of some therapy complainant A choose to do with our supervisor in private practice. You may wonder what it then has to do with us as a service. Well, the complainants also made some ancillary allegations about not liking how we do things as a person-centred service and/or our supervision arrangements (stating we do not do things in the ‘Proper’ way – which they see in terms of rules, formal policies and management committees). They ascribed all of this to the practitioner concerned, which showed a failure to understand how this service actually functions. They appear to be arguing we should have prevented this therapeutic relationship, contracted for by two adults/peers, outside the context of their both volunteering with us. Finally the more we looked at the facts, the more the whole situation raised profound issues for us around justice and ethics, and looked like a malicious and unjustified attack on a practitioner we have worked alongside for nearly a decade (and greatly value based on our own experience). We chose to involve ourselves, and continue to do so – it had a ‘not on our watch’ flavour for us. This has proved a risky undertaking – as siding with the witch in a witch-hunt tends to be. So be it.
Examining the allegations made by complainant A, we could not, on the face of it, see any evidence of unethical behaviour by the practitioner concerned. Although complainant A asserted this, neither the detailed allegations, nor the (considerable) contemporaneous evidence supported their assertions.
Complainant A’s use of the word ‘unethical’ rested not on allegations of unethical words or actions by the practitioner, but rather on complainant A’s unchecked out interpretation/story about the practitioner’s underlying motivation. They then asserted this as if proven fact. This also appears to be true for some of those who have rallied to their flag, with further thin and interpretative allegations in the context of what appear to be assorted causes of hostility.
Our review rapidly suggested that – to the extent complainant A genuinely had issues with the therapeutic work at the time (and see below on this) – what was actually going on was a hostile response arising from material emerging in therapy. It looked to us as if complainant A had brought material to therapy, which may have led into painful emotions, self-concept challenge and the defensive mechanisms this can trigger. Obviously it is not unusual for this to happen in therapy, nor for the client to decide their response is the therapist’s ‘fault’. In our experience, such conflict can often be usefully worked through and resolved within the therapeutic relationship – with support from outside the relationship if need be. But, for that to happen, the client needs to disclose the issue. Complainant A did not do that at the time or for 10 months afterwards, and then spoke to third parties/made a complaint first – despite being a therapist themselves, who had made a commitment to our service to work with congruence, and within the BACP Ethical Framework.
However, our review also suggested that complainant A’s response was largely retrospective. They now claim that their ‘concerns’ were serious, and arose towards the end of the medium term therapeutic work, in August 2011. In fact, the evidence strongly suggests that, for at least 5-6 months after the therapeutic work concluded, complainant A had no issue of substance:-
- they continued to work in our service and with the supervisor concerned, with apparent ease and friendliness (repeatedly witnessed by various colleagues, inside supervision groups and outside);
- they raised no ‘concerns’ with that supervisor, or by talking to their second supervisor, or with anyone else on the supervision/administrative teams here. They now claim they did not realize there was anyone else to talk to, besides the practitioner concerned. This is manifestly untrue. To give a few small examples of relevant evidence: both complainants had two supervisors (and complainant A commented in writing in June 2012 about their liking for/trust in the second supervisor); complainant A’s application meeting and their induction was with our placement co-ordinator, another possible resource; our office contacts list lists all our supervisors with contact details; complainant A regularly partook in a supervision group with a senior therapist also in the group, who worked on the same day as complainant A. There are plenty of choices of people to approach, for everyone here;
- Complainant A sent the supervisor concerned over 35 emails in 2011/early 2012, friendly and chatty in tone, with ideas for the service, requests, queries – very much ‘business as usual’;
- in one such email (sent 3 months after the therapy ended), they asked if a relative – who was also a qualified therapist – could come to work at our service, and if this person could also do some similar therapeutic work in the practitioner’s private practice. In the event, this relative did indeed apply to our service, was accepted as a therapist, and continued to work with us months after the conflict began. They did not do any therapeutic work with the practitioner concerned (it is actually a rarity in our service for one of our therapists to work with another – although people do make that choice from time to time);
- in another such email (sent 5 months after the therapy ended), complainant A spoke in the warmest possible terms of their experience of this supervisor, both in supervision and in the separately contacted-for private practice therapeutic work, expressing valuing and gratitude;
- Complainant A also published two client-facing articles on-line describing their (positive) experience of the therapeutic work, again 5 months after the therapy ended. The articles included the practitioner’s name/private practice website details (with link). They thus publicly endorsed the practitioner they now claim to have believed at the time to be unethical, even dangerous. Complainant A deleted the longer/more specific article two days before emailing their complaint – after it had remained in a public forum for over four months. Fortunately we were able to retrieve it via Google cache.
We find it impossible to reconcile this and much other evidence with complainant A’s allegations, or with ethical practice.
So when/why did complainant A become angry?
The evidence suggests complainant A actually became angry some time after February 2012 (not in August 2011 as they claim). So how come? We cannot of course be certain – and we have some deductions.
Complainant A was full of ideas for our service, and put them forward to the supervisor concerned – who initially engaged with this (we like ideas and energy here). However by early spring 2012, the supervisor had noticed that the ideas mostly seemed to serve complainant A, rather than our service. The supervisor raised this perception with another member of the supervision team, who looked at complainant A’s emails and website, and agreed the ideas were not in the best interests of the service, and seemed to be more about complainant A’s own agenda/ambition. At this point, the supervisor began to disengage with the proposed schemes. There was no difficulty about complainant A remaining in our service at that point, from our perspective – it was just that the answers to some of the ideas began to be ‘thanks, but no’.
At about the same time, complainant A asked the supervisor for a client allocation to an external private practice room (this is a normal sub-contracting element of our service, which can help avoid excessive client waiting times and as a secondary aim is about helping our therapists establish themselves in private practice). The supervisor declined this – it is economically viable for us to agree this only where the client is paying at least £25, and these were paying around £15, besides which we had scope within the service to meet the client needs. Complainant A has since made it clear they were angry at this decision, and misunderstood it. They appear to have taken personally what was in fact a service-driven decision. They did not say so at the time, so there was never any opportunity for us to clarify.
After leaving our service, at less than a year qualified, complainant A launched their own service offering “professional counselling on a sliding scale fee basis”. On their last day working for us, they went with complainant B to a meeting with our landlords (initiated by them 4 days previously for the purposes of making their allegations). We have a good relationship with our landlords, and this approach appears not to have caused lasting harm. At about the same time, complainant B made a comment to one of our therapists about their intention of running the service ‘properly’, ‘once [supervisors’ name] has gone’. There thus appears to have been a commercial motivation to the complainants’ behaviour. We run this service on a not-for-profit basis. That is a choice, not a necessity. The service could be reconfigured to pay salaries. It would also – in its current shape or otherwise – be a remarkable platform for a therapist seeking to build a reputation.
Of course, we are essentially a community of volunteers, and the departure of one supervisor would not create a ‘takeover situation’ – but, bizarrely, the complainants do not appear to have understood this fact. They appear to have had a great deal of inaccurate ‘story’ about us – which they never raised, so none of us had the opportunity to say ‘Hang on, that’s not actually how it works’.
Following the meeting with our landlords in early July, complainant B finally sent us specifics of their complaint. Complainant B made two main (linked) allegations, claiming witness support for one of these from one of our therapists. They did not at any stage tell the supposed witness that they intended to use them in this way, or ask permission. The ‘witness’ told us that complainant B’s allegation was untrue, and gave us a written statement. Clearly this impacts the credibility of the other linked allegation. There is no evidence to support either allegation, and the practitioner concerned also says they are untrue. Some of the circumstantial evidence raises serious question marks about credibility too. We think both allegations are fabricated. This is, of course, both unethical and criminal.
There is a similar mismatch between the allegations and contemporaneous evidence as there is in the case of complainant A, and a similar – but much longer – inexplicable time lag before raising the issue. Complainant B says that their cause of complaint arose in 2009, and that they had serious concerns from that point, but chose to conceal this. For three years, they continued to work for us and 1:1 with the supervisor concerned, with every sign of good humour, without disclosing their ‘concerns’. After nearly three years – in March 2012 – they finally made allegations to an inappropriate third party, with no connection to therapy, the regulation of therapy or to complainant B themselves. It appears complainant B learned of an opportunity to cause harm, and took it. Complainant B’s initial approach was unsuccessful – and so complainant A/their group subsequently also made allegations to the same third party.
This ultimately caused personal devastation to the supervisor – because the organisation concerned acted on the allegations without investigation – although this did not become clear until June 2012. Complainant B waited another three months after this before doing anything else. They then signed the June letter, and in early July went to the police, claiming – without apparent justification even on the face of the allegations – that their three year old ‘concerns’ were serious enough to merit this. In our view – even if the allegations had been true – there can be no conceivable justification for this behaviour in a senior practising therapist, who has undertaken to maintain ethical standards in the interests of clients. If they had genuine causes for concern, it cannot be acceptable to wait three years before raising them with anyone. If not, their behaviour is yet more unacceptable. We believe they have engaged in a retrospective ‘rewriting’ of history to support false allegations.
Another compelling piece of evidence that the complainants are not – in reality – motivated by a wish to raise “ethical concerns” is the list of their 12 or so concurrent claims/complaints. We think this illustrates graphically that this is not a legitimate, proportional or ethically held attempt to raise “concerns” in an appropriate way, but is instead motivated by a wish to cause harm. The complainants have consistently self-referred to these complaints, i.e. they tell each body complained to about all the others, thereby making their case appear stronger, despite the weakness of the specific allegations (and they refer to each other for the same purpose – a highly effective “no smoke without fire” strategy). Complaints have been made to:-
- A organisation that offers training in another form of therapy (than person-centred talking therapy) in which the practitioner concerned had trained;
- A church;
- An organisation offering subscription membership and a professional conduct process for talking therapists;
- Our landlords (also a church);
- The Employment Tribunal Service – 3 linked claims (the complainants and one other);
- The police: repeated approaches in at least three towns, all by members of this group;
- Adult Safeguarding, initiated by the same people (when their police approaches failed);
- At least four different counselling training providers locally (we take placement students at this service);
- The Advertising Standards Authority;
- Repeated direct approaches to our own therapists;
- Highly unethical direct ‘cold’ approaches to least 3 private clients of the practitioner concerned;
- An anonymous complaint to our local M.P.
There are other examples too. It is hard for us to see how any therapist can imagine this to be proportionate or ethical, especially when combined with widespread gossip in the therapeutic community. Essentially the complainants appear to have made their allegations to anyone who will stand still and listen. Large amounts of this have leaked back to us and our therapists – at one point we were receiving daily reports of incidences. And, of course, the complainants had already taken action to destroy large swathes of the relevant practitioner’s world. They could have made one complaint, to an appropriate body, through a confidential process (confidential for both sides – on the basis of the presumption of innocence and basic human rights), and allowed that to play through. Had they done this, we would – of course – not be writing this. Instead they administered their own choice of sentence without trial – and launched these 12 or so claims/complaints.
They have cost the practitioner concerned and their family deep and irrevocable distress, and a huge amount of money in lost income for the rest of their lives – unless they/we can repair the damage. They have cost this service tens of thousands – a not-for-profit counselling agency complainant A described in June 2012 as providing ‘a marvellous service to Devon’. And the practitioner concerned does NO client work for us – as the complainants are well aware.
Specifics of the concurrent complaints
Dealing with these concurrent complaints in a bit more detail:-
A. An organisation that offers training in another form of therapy (than person-centred talking therapy) in which the practitioner concerned had trained;
B. A church;
C. An organisation offering subscription membership/a professional conduct process for talking therapists;
The first two processes are essentially on hold, pending conclusions to the other processes. We are therefore not going to comment on them here.
The third is ongoing, so we are not going to comment much on that at this point either. Suffice it to say they made a total of 5 concurrent complaints we know of. Three of these were apparently rejected, and the remaining two are ongoing. We also made three complaints against them. These were rejected – not, as they claim, on the merits, but essentially because we were never their ‘client’.
D. Our landlords (see above);
E. The Employment Tribunal Service:-
- both complainants made claims in September 2012, with one other, & withdrew them at the 11th hour, immediately before the hearing;
- We have no employees. The complainants were volunteers, like all our therapists, and also did some sub-contracting work for us on a self employed basis. They were well aware of this and had repeatedly signed paperwork to acknowledge it, without ever challenging this. In our 18 year history, no-one has ever previously suggested they consider us to be an employer. Complainant A was claiming we employed them (without pay) throughout their final year placement – which those in the counselling world will know is just not how it works. Complainant A had consistently referred in writing to their status as a volunteer/placement student, and to the voluntary nature of the work. Complainant B claimed to have been employed by us throughout several years in which they were purely an unpaid volunteer. Neither of them raised this issue with us, before they filed the claims.
- Unfortunately for us, the legal tests for whether someone claiming to be employed IS or not, are complex and require a hearing – so we incurred hundreds of hours unpaid work putting together our defence. We got no support from insurers because (ironically) we do not have employers’ liability insurance because we are not an employer!
- The complainants consistently disregarded Tribunal directions and failed to meet Tribunal deadlines, showing disrespect for us, the Tribunal and the process which they had chosen to initiate. Complainant A was expressly warned by the judge in a telephone case management conference about “mud-slinging” and attempting to bring in irrelevant material. The complainants referred repeatedly to the ‘extensive’ police investigation – see below – in an apparent attempt to influence the viewpoints of the judges involved.
- It is extremely unusual for Tribunals to award costs, especially to the person argued to be the “employer”. After the complainants withdrew, we applied for a costs order against them on the basis of Rule 40 of the Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations 2004. This specifies that costs may be awarded if a person: “has acted vexatiously, abusively, disruptively or otherwise unreasonably, or the bringing or conducting of the proceedings by the paying party has been misconceived”. We did this because of the huge amount it had cost us to mount the defence, as a not-for-profit, self-funding service, here to serve the needs of our clients – not pay for unreasonable and misconceived court proceedings. We also thought it was reasonable to ask the complainants to take responsibility for the choices they had made – to issue misconceived and disingenuous proceedings, and then withdraw at the 11th hour.
- We argued both elements of Rule 40 applied – the complainants knew they were not employees, this was well-documented and no-one has ever disputed it, plus they had repeatedly referred to themselves in writing (evidenced by us to the Tribunal) as volunteers and/or self-employed. We argued they were essentially using the Tribunal process to meet another agenda, i.e. vexatiously and abusively. They themselves stated more than once they were essentially using the Tribunal to obtain a legitimized public forum for their allegations – i.e. inappropriately. They also conducted the proceedings abusively and unreasonably, e.g. by missing deadlines and, in the judge’s words, “mud-slinging”.
- The costs hearing was in June 2013. Although the complainants had stated as their reason for withdrawing an unwillingness to be in the same room with us (we were not looking forward to this either), they all came to the costs hearing to resist our application, despite the court expressly telling them this would not be necessary. There were two of us in the room, and 5 of them plus a supporter.
- The judge was crystal clear we won on the merits and that the claims were indeed “misconceived”. He did not look at the claimants’ conduct of proceedings, because he was clear we won on the “misconceived” point. However – sadly for us and the not-for-profit service we run – he did not award costs and dismissed our application, solely because he said he was not satisfied the complainants had the financial means to pay an award likely to run to several thousand pounds out of personal income.
F. The police: This is the most toxic of all the complaints, and generated untold amounts of stress for the practitioner concerned, their family, and some for us at this service. The complaint was against the practitioner, rather than this service:-
- We learned the complainants were making the rounds of at least 3 police stations in summer 2012. We were baffled by this – even if every word of every allegation had been true, we could see no possible criminal offence. Apparently the police agreed with us. We have documentary evidence that the complainants were told on more than one occasion that there was no crime and nothing illegal had happened.
- But they persisted, and seem to have tried the alternative tack of Devon County Council/Adult Safeguarding. An investigation into the practitioner concerned (rather than us as a service) began in late 2012, arising from these allegations. As our lawyer put it ‘They have a duty to investigate allegations’. This dragged on glacially for almost a year.
- We offered engagement to the police, and provided them with evidence to support what we were saying. Both complainants made repeated private/public statements about the ‘extensive’ police investigation, causing a great deal of reputational harm. Despite this, NO approach was ever made by the police to the practitioner concerned (save as stated below), anyone in their world (bar the complainants), any of us at this service or – bizarrely – the witness who would have told them complainant B’s allegation was untrue. So it is hard to see that the investigation was either lively or extensive in reality – as opposed to in the complainants’ ‘spun’ version.
- The police finally contacted the practitioner concerned in May 2013 and requested a voluntary interview, which they and their lawyer attended. This lasted about an hour. The lawyer advised that in his view it was ‘highly unlikely’ the police/CPS would take it further, given the nature of the allegations and the context. The practitioner was asked questions about two official police statements, by complainant B and another person (described by complainant A as a ‘close friend’). Although we know complainant A made an official police statement, this was not mentioned and so it appears the police rejected it. The lawyer described complainant A’s allegations as ‘just silly’ and the two statements actually made as extremely thin – even at face value. The ‘close friend’s’ statement covered content we already knew about from complainant A. That person too had not alleged any specific unethical – let alone criminal – words or behaviour by the practitioner concerned, merely their own unchecked out interpretation about underlying motivation. Once again, the contemporaneous evidence indicated these were retrospective ‘concerns’.
- The lawyer explained that – in accordance with their invariable practice once an investigation was opened – the police would refer the file to the CPS for a decision on what to do, and that the CPS had a 6 month window to decide – so we would know after 6 months that no action would be taken. He said that, where the CPS decides to prosecute a case, they obviously let the defendant know. He told us that this decision is often made within a week or two of the file arriving at the CPS and notified to the defendant promptly after that.
- We heard nothing further from the police until mid November. The relevant 6 month period was due to expire at the end of November or in early December (we could not know the exact date, as the police never told us when they sent the file to the CPS).
- In October, we emailed the lawyer and asked if there was anything we could do to obtain police confirmation that no action was to be taken. He said our only viable option was to wait out the 6 month CPS decision window. He said it was unlikely in the extreme the police would respond to a request for information if we made one, or ever tell the practitioner concerned there would be no prosecution. We would have to assume it from the passing of time. We have serious concerns about this in terms of human rights – the whole process has been eye-opening.
- In mid November, the practitioner concerned unexpectedly received a friendly-sounding email in first name terms from the constable who did the interview, confirming no action would be taken.
- The practitioner concerned was never arrested or charged with anything – but their reputation has been dragged through the mud by the complainants. So much for ethics, civil rights and the presumption of innocence.
G. Adult Safeguarding: Following the police email, we contacted Adult Safeguarding and asked for an update, and a conclusion of their investigation – they had essentially refused to engage with us or take any further steps until the police investigation was over. They offered us a meeting, which was collaborative/co-operative in tone and content, and attended by a senior DCC Customer Relations Officer. They confirmed Devon County Council could see no basis on the facts for any further investigation or action. We agreed an acceptable action plan between us. DCC provided us with a letter confirming the outcome, and wrote simultaneously to the other agencies involved in this multi-agency investigation, confirming that DCC intended to close its file and why, and giving them a chance to comment/object. None did. Adult Safeguarding has thus closed its file, with no finding against the practitioner concerned, let alone this service.
H. At least four different counselling training providers (we offer training placements to final year students): –
- The effects of these approaches by the complainants have been mixed. Historically we have always had far more applicants for placements than spaces. That has not changed. People often apply because they know someone on placement here or one of our therapists, or on the basis of another form of personal recommendation. We had a good reputation – and still do, with those who know something about us or who have had the reflective muscle/integrity to talk to us/consider the evidence (rather than simply grabbing a pitchfork and joining the hunt).
- Before we knew anything about these complaints, we chose to end our decade-long relationship with one training provider. This provider coincidentally trained complainant A and three of the other therapists here who chose to: engage in closed door discussions with the complainants; not to raise issues openly with anyone with supervisory/admin responsibilities here; and then to leave us. We ended that relationship because we had increasing perceptions in the supervision team of the widening gulf between us as a person-centred service/community, and this particular training provider – decidedly un-person-centred in its ethos/model. We had issues with the apparent quality of the training. In particular, we were noticing that some placement students coming to us from these courses appeared to have a very external locus of evaluation, a dependence on rules, and a tendency to look to perceived external authority for answers and the ‘proper’/’right’ way to do things. That does not align with person-centred or how we seek to do things here. We felt (with prescience, as it turned out) increasing questions about how viable it would be for these students to develop/foster an internal locus, given this contrast in ethos between training provider and placement, and the mixed messages thereby arising. The answer appears to be: ‘Not very’.
- A second training provider axed our service from their list of approved placements when the complainants (who had no links to this provider) approached them with allegations in July 2012. The provider did this without seeking discussion with us, and refused to engage with us about it when we attempted this. Their actions appear to have been based solely on unsubstantiated allegations/one side of the story. We had two recently qualified therapists from that course – neither of whom were approached by their ex-tutors for comments on their own experiences, and both of whom are still with us (having been briefed on the allegations – a choice they made when we offered information). Both work in supervision with the supervisor concerned. We also had one placement student from that course, who was peremptorily told to leave us. She chose to stay with us, and instead engage with the massive upheaval of changing training providers. She is now qualified and continues to work with us. The training provider reimbursed the bulk of fees she had paid ‘as a goodwill gesture’. The reality is that, although we have had some excellent students from that course, we had the sense this might be more ‘in spite of’ than ‘because of’ the quality of the training. We were not unduly surprised by the training provider’s (in our view inadequate and unethical) response to the allegations, and the disrespect they showed both their student as a mature, autonomous adult denied a voice/say in a decision with huge implications for her, and us.
- Other than these two, we retain good relationships with local training providers, and the upshot is that the courses we rated most highly continue to send us students of high calibre.
- Again – given that the complainants had the option, and had taken the option, of formal complaints processes with the protections for confidentiality these usually afford – it is very difficult to see any justification for their actions other than a desire to cause harm. At the point they approached the second training institution, they had already made repeated direct approaches to a number of our remaining therapists, essentially seeking to recruit them to the flag – and been rebuffed (with the exception of the training peers mentioned in paragraph H2 above). Our therapists reported the contacts to our crisis team, expressing concern and anger about the complainants’ behaviour, and its potential impact on our clients.
- The practitioner concerned had/has some 30 continuing supervisees inside and outside our service, who express themselves as happy with those supervision relationships and choose to continue them (people can and do occasionally change supervisors within our service on request, often because of diary clashes – but it could be any reason). The complainants clearly already had a sense of that, from the rebuffs they had received. So their behaviour is profoundly disrespectful, not merely of the practitioner concerned, or us as a service, but of the autonomous choices all of those therapists have made and continue to make, their viewpoints and experiences.
- Of course supervision in this service is provided free of charge, so it is also worth pointing out this practitioner’s supervisees in private practice are mostly paying £40-50 an hour, and are competent, qualified, often very senior, therapists with a voice and a choice. Many of those relationships are numbered in years. The complainants have increasingly argued that the practitioner concerned offers a poor quality of supervision, and supervisees tolerate this only because they are in effect a captive audience (at our service). The evidence strongly contradicts this – both as already described, and in the 20 or so testimonials those supervisees inside and outside this service have given us, speaking of their sense of the quality of the supervision offered.
I. The Advertising Standards Authority: In late November 2012, we had a letter from the Advertising Standards Authority, concerning a complaint made to it about an information sheet we offer prospective placement students. This stated we were organizational members of the BACP (as we were at that time – we have since resigned). We had a bit of preliminary discussion with the ASA, while they considered whether or not to investigate. Our view was that there was nothing misleading about the statement and no evidence that the complainants had actually been misled. The ASA informed us that the complainant(s) had asked to remain anonymous from us, although the ASA knew identity. We think that in itself raises issues – we do not see how anonymous complaints are compatible with an ethical position, integrity or congruence. Because of the context, we were clear the complaint emanated from the complainants. The ASA then informed us that – whereas they will usually not disclose identity of complainants – they will do so where the complainants are competitors. We replied giving the complainants’ names and confirming that they were indeed competitors. The ASA emailed us the following day to tell us the complainant(s) had withdrawn their complaint(s), presumably because they did not wish the ASA to disclose their identity. Of course, this behaviour is somewhat illogical, because withdrawing effectively confirms that the complainants were indeed one/all the people we named. Again, we believe the approach to the ASA to be maliciously motivated, and about causing maximum damage. This is only one of the anonymous approaches/complaints made by the complainants (see paragraph L below for another example).
J. Repeated direct approaches to our own therapists/office volunteers: This has extended over more than a year and a half. It has involved the complainants calling them at home/in the evening on personal numbers they have not given the complainants or authorized them to use, and writing to their personal addresses, timed to arrive on a Saturday morning. From the circulation list, it is quite clear that the complainants took confidential information (provided for legitimate use within the service) with them when they left, without our knowledge or permission. The latest approaches were in November 2013 and January this year. Both complainants signed a letter to around 20 of our therapists in November. This referred to the police/Safeguarding investigation (which we suspect the complainants already knew was about to be closed). It also invited our therapists to contact a charity which offers support to those involved with ‘cults and abusive groups’. We find ludicrous the suggestion that a large and long-established not-for-profit counselling service, with a good reputation, staffed by diverse volunteers with diverse trainings and experience is, in fact, a cult. Our therapists and office volunteers also find this suggestion bizarre. We had a good assortment of raised eyebrows, outrage, anger and laughter amongst the 16 therapists and office volunteers who took up our offer of talking time about this letter. No-one here appears to think they are part of a cult. We wrote to the charity. It has neither acknowledged nor responded to our letter.
K. Highly unethical direct approaches to least 3 clients of the practitioner concerned in his private practice. For obvious reasons, we are not going to say much about this. We imagine the complainants would have done the same in respect of this practitioner’s entire client base – had they had the relevant details. As it was, they clearly engaged in a considerable amount of deeply unethical detective work/gossip to identify three clients. All three reported the contact. None raised any concerns about the relevant practitioner, although two of them expressed considerable anger about the complainants approaching them. Those still in therapy with the relevant practitioner choose to continue their work.
L. An anonymous complaint to our local M.P. This emerged in a conversation between one of our supervisors and the office of the MP concerned. Again, it was clear from the content that this also emanated from the complainants.
How do our therapists experience us?
There is another obvious conclusion from all this. The two complainants, and their small group of supporting therapists, allege a consistent pattern of behaviour in the practitioner concerned (albeit one not supported by their detailed allegations or the actual evidence). They have also repeatedly implied that this behaviour is well-known. The difficulty is that this is demonstrably untrue.
As we have said, the practitioner concerned currently has around 30 supervisees in total, divided between therapists at this service and private practice. Most of those are aware of the allegations.
As said, we learned early on that the complainants were making widespread and wholly inappropriate allegations, and that this was rife in the Exeter therapeutic world, and daily filtering back to our therapists – whom the complainants were also approaching directly. In those circumstances, we thought there was an ethical imperative to offer our volunteers information about what was happening. Some felt no need for this (for us, this was a matter of personal choice for each individual). Others took it up and have been briefed throughout the conflict’s history.
Obviously this conflict has been deeply disturbing. We have paid a great deal of attention in the supervision team to how it arose, and to what we can do to avoid anything similar ever happening again. We have explored extensively with our therapists/volunteers how they experience us, and what more we can do to help them make the cultural/personal transition that working within a person-centred organisation imports.
We’ve had lots of useful input and ideas, but not one supervisee has raised a concern, or expressed a desire to change supervisor.
Here is some specific feedback. These comments are taken from and are representative of feedback from some 15 or so therapists working for our service – not including those in the supervisory/administrative teams.
Comments on our service:-
‘safe and supported by people rather than policies and procedures’; ‘I feel very privileged to have found Palace Gate Counselling Service’; ‘absolute trust in the ethics & integrity of PGCS & the people’; ‘a sanctuary’; ‘very true to itself’; ‘fantastic support and help’; ‘very ethical, honest and open place’; ‘safe environment’; ‘[lives] up to its ethos’; ‘Patient, friendly, approachable, available’; ‘deeply rooted in the Person-Centred approach’; ‘unique feel’; ‘strong sense of everyone matters’; ‘PG rates among the best placement providers’.
On our supervision generally:-
‘helpful, encouraging and supportive – 1-1 and group’; ‘supervision provided is fantastic’; ‘group has allowed me to develop trust…[and] empowered me’; ‘it works well’; ‘I feel completely supported’; ‘Great learning experience’; ‘respectful and supportive environment’; ‘invaluable’; ‘genuine and honest’; ‘done with empathy, congruence and unconditional positive regard…the ideal space’.
And on the supervisor/practitioner concerned:-
‘openness and straightforward approach’; ‘wise, challenging, supportive and empathic’; ‘approachable, understanding and supportive’; ‘enhanced my practice and increased my confidence’; ‘amazing insight & experience’; ‘treated respectfully and listened to with genuine empathy and care’; ‘thoroughly supported’; ‘Provides safety to share strengths and vulnerability’; ‘welcoming and open. I have learnt a lot’; ‘person-centred….insightful and supportive…professional, honest and congruent’; ‘genuine and ethical’.
We have felt immensely heartened by our therapists’/volunteers’ responses and their support.
So this small group of hostile therapists with what seem to be a mixed bag of motivations are asking people to believe that a pattern of behaviour can run riot in one small group of connected therapists, and not appear at all anywhere else, or in client work. This is not plausible.
It matters deeply to all of us who choose to volunteer our time that this service continues. No-one makes a minimum half a day/week commitment of unpaid personal time, without reason. It matters to us that this service continues as a person-centred service – offering real choice to people on low incomes and in difficult circumstances, as well as those who choose to pay a full commercial rate to come here; offering therapists a chance to work in a different way. We entirely understand that some people like and want external locus structures, management committees, formal policies and rules – therapists, supervisors and clients. And for those people, our culture offers a bewildering array of other organisations to choose from. Our clients and our therapists consistently tell us and show us that they value what we offer, in its current form, and want us to keep offering it. We want to respect their choices, and our own.
The interesting fact is that we continue to be a vibrant and thriving service. For sure, we have taken some dents in the last two years. But we have done a lot of talking, learning, healing, growing and moving through. We know in some quarters we are the focus of judgements as a service, and as individuals (in terms of the practitioner concerned and those of us who have chosen to speak out against what we experience as profound injustice). We receive weekly evidence that we continue to be the subject of extensive gossip and rumour in Exeter deriving from the complainants. There are always those who will sign up for this – although increasingly those reporting it are expressing concern about the complainants’ state of mind/behaviour, rather than about us. Of course gossip and rumour are harmful.
Yet, despite all of this, new therapists come, older ones stay, clients come, come back, recommend us to each other, feed back to us how important the service we offer is to them. We are financially robust, and emotionally/culturally resilient.
And we will fight for this.
Palace Gate Counselling Service
17 February 2014
 We are going to call them the complainants, and identify them individually as complainant A and complainant B.
 Meaning those of us involved in supervision and administration here, besides the supervisor concerned – we formed a small crisis team, made up of three representatives of our supervisory and admin functions (who by definition are those of us able to volunteer time to the service beyond our basic commitment of 4 hours).
 We have three supervisors on our team, besides the person the complainants claim to be concerned about. They could have spoken to any one of them at any time. They chose not to. Both the complaining therapists had working relationships with another supervisor, and we have contemporaneous written evidence of the trust/respect/confidence one of them expressed for that person as a practitioner, at the point this conflict began.
 I realize that, for some readers, that will raise ethical issues. Some therapists take a view that complex or dual relationship is to be avoided, or (erroneously) that it is ‘prohibited’. We do not see how such an approach is compatible with a person-centred perspective. It would be the height of illogic for us as therapists to claim a model founded on the idea of internal locus, and then impose a ‘one-size-fits-all’ external locus (‘No, you can’t’) on a competent adult human being asking to do some work with one of us. The task, it seems to us, is for therapist and proposed client to explore together issues around complexity/duality, and for the therapist to explore with themselves whether they feel able to provide an effective therapeutic relationship to that person and whether they want to do the work. The answer may be yes, and it may be no. The nature of the conversation will clearly differ with a ‘client-off-the-street’, from this case – where the proposed client is a therapist too. Therapists routinely work with each other. Often they know each other in another context – indeed, I myself am only interested in working with a therapist, if I have seen enough to have a sense of who they are and how they work. On that basis, I have worked therapeutically with two people with whom I have also worked in supervision (both hugely valuable experiences). For sure, it is more complex than if I worked with a therapist I saw in no other context. Sometimes issues arise from that complexity. Relationship IS complex. I want to work with someone I trust to offer me presence and the core conditions in working through complexity (or conflict), not someone seeking to avoid it. After all, I am not going to be able to avoid it in life. The BACP Ethical Framework appears to take a similar view: ‘Dual relationships arise when the practitioner has two or more kinds of relationship concurrently with a client, for example client and trainee, acquaintance and client, colleague and supervisee. The existence of a dual relationship with a client is seldom neutral and can have a powerful beneficial or detrimental impact that may not always be easily foreseeable. For these reasons practitioners are required to consider the implications of entering into dual relationships with clients, to avoid entering into relationships that are likely to be detrimental to clients, and to be readily accountable to clients and colleagues for any dual relationships that occur.’ Please note that, in this service, ‘accountable’ means willing to work through issues arising, using the core conditions, ethical intent and integrity – not external locus ‘crime and punishment’. [Note by Lindsey Talbott]
 See our ethos post for more on how we approach these questions: https://palacegatecounsellingservice.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/a-different-pathway-for-therapists-too/
 See the following posts for more on how we work: https://palacegatecounsellingservice.wordpress.com/2014/01/21/a-different-pathway-what-we-offer/